Ready to strike the final blow to crack the outer shell of a coconut at his stall, a vendor smiles in response to a question about the tree under whose shade he does his business. “Bhaiya, ye pedh chaar sau saal purana toh hoga (This tree must be 400 years old at least),” he says.
A 21-metre tall baobab, scientific name Adansonia digitata, stands statuesque outside the Bhabha Hospital in Bandra (W). According to tree lovers and experts, the tree is nearly 500 years old, reportedly planted by Portuguese settlers of Mumbai. The ‘Trees of Mumbai’ book, which records the oldest species of trees in the city, makes a mention of this one, among other trees.
The tree has now spread its smooth greyish-brown branches over fruit stalls and the Bhabha hospital canteen.
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Baobabs, mahoganies, banyans, peepals and tamarind — Mumbai has some of the oldest trees that have stood vigil as the city changed from an era of bullock carts and marshy fields to roads and a Metro rail.
Local residents of Bandra know very less about the history of the flora around them. According to Gave Palkhivala, a resident of Bandra for at least 70 years, the government has not taken any measures to protect the trees of Bandra or spread awareness about their rich heritage.
Another ancient resident of Mumbai is a mahogany tree that stands on the street outside the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in Colaba. Scientifically known as Swietenia mahogani, the tree stands at least 25 metres tall. Usually planted along roadsides to provide shade, this particular tree was planted by a missionary and explorer, David Livingstone, a guest of the East India Company in 1862.
Secretary and vice-president of Friends Of Trees, a society formed in 1978, Ashok Kothari, says, “As many as 137 trees in Santa Cruz were cut by the government in two months, recently. Tree lovers have been objecting but the locals do not show any support as they are unaware about the trees’ history.”
Kothari, who has also been on the governing council of BNHS, adds that tree lovers had been demanding that the trees be registered as heritage spots in the city. “BNHS and Friends of Trees Society can keep a count of these archaic flora,” he says.
Other centuries-old banyans and baobabs flourish near the Horniman Circle and the Mumbai Harbour, respectively.